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Nickkie Findlay hails from the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, where she works for her husband’s family bread distribution business with headquarters in New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. For years, she suffered from migraines, nausea, and vertigo with no relief or explanation available from her doctors.
When a chronic sinus infection became unbearable, she decided to see a specialist. Around the same time, she developed an intense case of vertigo. The specialist recommended she undergo a special brain scan in Auckland, six hours away from her hometown. Nickkie decided to put it off; she’d been dealing with migraines and the other ailments for years and chalked up these new symptoms to other changes in her life.
Five months later, Nickkie was preparing to spend her fiftieth birthday on a family holiday in Africa – and just happened to be flying out of the city that offered the special brain scan. She decided to get the scan. As she was boarding her plane, she got the news: doctors had found a brain tumor.
“I spoke to my general practitioner and asked him if I should still go on the trip. He told me I’d be fine, that it wasn’t a particularly dangerous tumor. So, I went,” Nickkie recalls.
After Africa, Nickkie traveled to the U.S. for business, where she read the full report about her tumor. She couldn’t get an appointment in New Zealand for another three months and wasn’t happy to wait that long without knowing the full scope of her condition. Though she had no medical insurance in the U.S., she started searching online for doctors.
Her search brought her into contact with Robert Friedlander, MD, chairman of the UPMC Department of Neurosurgery. Dr. Friedlander agreed to see her in three days, so Nickkie found herself on a plane from Boise, Idaho to Pittsburgh, Pa.
Nickkie’s tumor was a tentorial meningioma, a rare, benign tumor found along the surface of the tentorium cerebelli in the brain. Because of where the tumor was located, Dr. Friedlander recommended that Nickkie have it removed at UPMC since he and his team had expertly handled such cases before.
Nickkie and her family agreed. She set a date with Dr. Friedlander to have the tumor removed in six weeks, then flew back to Boise to await surgery. During this time, Nickkie had access to Dr. Friedlander’s email. She felt reassured because all her concerns were addressed immediately.
“When we traveled back to Pittsburgh, the international referral team gave us a list of hotels, made the bookings, and had a car to pick us up,” Nickkie says. “Everybody was incredible.”
On October 3, 2017, Nickkie underwent a seven-hour operation to remove the tumor. Advanced image-guided techniques were used to navigate around the venous sinuses and critical brain structures.
By 5:30 the next morning, a doctor was in Nickkie’s room, confirming that the team had removed the entire tumor. Two days later, Nickkie was back in her hotel room. Recovery, overall, went well. Nickkie walked four or five times a day, each day going farther than the one before. After 14 days, she was able to fly back to Boise, then a few weeks later she returned home to New Zealand.
Though Nickkie still suffers from occasional headaches, they’re what she considers “normal people headaches,” and not the debilitating ones she experienced pre-surgery. Every year for the rest of her life, she will undergo an MRI to monitor her brain; luckily, she can get these done at home in New Zealand and send the results electronically to Dr. Friedlander.
It gives Nickkie peace of mind knowing that she can rely on Dr. Friedlander when she needs him, even thousands of miles away. She’s grateful for her recovery and the chance to enjoy time with family.
“I remember sitting with my family at a restaurant in Pittsburgh three days after brain surgery and thinking how incredibly lucky I was,” she says.
It’s a feeling that has stayed with her since.
Our patient stories profile a number of patients who have had brain surgery at UPMC. Although everyone's care experience is unique, we hope that sharing these stories will help other prospective patients and their families better understand these procedures and their potential benefits.
Nickkie's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.